8 Valuable Tips On Starting A Year-Round Garden

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Eliot Coleman and his wife Barbara run Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. Coleman insists Mother Nature wants to be able to grow produce at all times, she just needs a little encouragement.

And Coleman suggests encouragement comes in the form of nutrient-rich soil, growing hardy plants, providing your garden with protection from the cold and wind, the desire to endure sub-zero temperatures when harvesting crops, and, of course, a little extra encouragement money.

The financial website Bloomberg explores the expense of a year-round garden and has compiled a useful list of tools and their associated costs, along with a brief explanation for each item.

Note: Before starting a garden, please also refer to “How to Banish Monsanto From Your Garden When Buying Seeds.”

1) Raised Beds

Estimated Cost: $360:

Two raised garden beds (96” long x 48” wide x 12″ high) — Lowe’s

Using a raised bed means the soil can warm up faster and drain better. Added benefits to using a raised bed include having more control over the soil mix. Perri McKinney, a home gardener in Westchester County, New York grows all her vegetables in raised beds instead of in the ground. “Vegetables grow better in a raised bed,” says McKinney, “and you don’t have to bend over quite as much which is easier on your back.”

Our note: Year-round gardeners unable to afford raise beds could use old used tires instead. If you have an apartment with a patio or balcony, you can use any item laying around that will hold healthy soil: used tires, plastic pools, feed sacks, buckets, or watering cans. Using these odds and ends as plant containers, you can harvest tomatoes, strawberries or zucchini.

2) Winter Veggies

Estimated Cost:

$3.45: Spinach, one packet of 1,000 seeds $3.95: Swiss chard, one packet of 200 seeds

$3.45: Scallions, one packet of 500 seeds

$3.45: Baby carrots, one packet of 750 seeds

$3.45: Beets, one packet of 385 seeds

$3.45: Parsnips, one packet of 350 seeds

In the summer, mosquitoes can be bothersome, and all sorts of bugs — not to mention deer — can make it tough for plants to survive. In the winter, those problems disappear, and most crops don’t even need to be watered.

Veggies can taste better, too: Coleman points out that the cold of winter makes carrots candied as starch turns into sugar. Even so, not all vegetables can make it through the winter.

“If you have to survive on what you are growing, you are going to be in trouble,” says Kathleen LaLiberte, a horticulturalist in Richmond, Vermont. “It makes me appreciate the stuff I buy in the grocery store.”

3) Mesclun All Year
Estimated Cost:

$2.75: Endive, one packet of 100 seeds

$3.45: Claytonia, one packet of 500 seeds

$1.50: Escarole, endive, mesclun mix; one packet of 200 seeds

$3.95: Kale, one packet of 100 seeds

$2.75: Arugula, one packet of 500 seeds

Just being able to pick lettuce from your garden in the winter may seem impressive enough. Margaret Roach of awaytogarden.com says there’s another benefit: For the price of one pound of organic baby mesclun, you can buy seed that will give you salads for a couple of years.

Besides that, the brilliant colors of the lettuce leaves — from green-blue to deep purple — will brighten up any garden. They taste good, as long as you harvest the leaves while they’re young; otherwise the cold temps can make them mushy. Once harvested, you can have a mache, lettuce and beet salad (great with baked bread and cheese) while watching the snow fall.

4) Hardy Herbs

Estimated Cost:

$1.25: Flat-leaf parsley, one packet of 300 seeds

$1.25: Chervil, one packet of 350 seeds

$1.35: Sage, one packet of 50 seeds

$1.25: Thyme, one packet of 350 seeds

Some herbs can be remarkably resilient. You can leave sage outside to face even the wrath of a Maine winter. While the sage can become weather-beaten, it survives and can be used for cooking. That won’t be the case for all herbs — rosemary and basil, for instance, are unlikely to make it through the colder months.

Parsley, though, is hardy and can be used to make a “chlorophyll explosion,” as Damrosch describes it. She’s talking about delicious green gazpacho, which is perhaps, best made in warmer months when other ingredients such as cucumbers, celery, cilantro and green peppers can grow.

5) Fertilize

Estimated Cost:

$75: 60 cubic feet of soil mixed with compost delivered locally in Burlington, Vermont — Gardeners.com

If you plan to use the soil on your property for a summer garden, test its pH balance by sending it to a local lab. If it’s too acidic, add limestone. You can also add dried and composted organic fertilizer, as well as aged manure. In the winter, with a raised-bed garden, have soil mixed with organic compost delivered to you.

Keep in the mind that the with all the planning, equipment, lab tests and nutrient rich soil, costs can add up. You want to avoid growing the proverbial “$100 tomato.”

6) Protection

Estimated Cost:

$18: Six 10′ PVC pipes, one-half inch thick to create mini hoops over two raised beds — Homedepot.com

$25: Husky 10′ x 25′ 6 mil polythylene sheeting for the mini hoops — Homedepot.com

$225: One mini cedar cold frame 2′ wide x 8′ long — Gardeners.com

$71: Polycarbonate sheet, 3′ wide x 4′ long for the cold frame — Homedepot.com

A heated greenhouse may be every gardener’s dream, but it’s not in every budget. In such a case, Niki Jabbour, author of “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener,” says to build mini-hoops over the garden that are covered in plastic. You can also use a cold frame -– a bottomless box made of wood that goes around some of your crops and can then be covered with plastic or glass panels.

Of course, if the temperature suddenly rises to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) while you’re at work –- as it did one day in Maine this winter -– you may have to rush home or your crops could be permanently damaged.

7) Winter Flowers

Estimated Cost:

$3.45: Johnny-jump-ups, one packet of 100 seeds

$2.75: Edible pansies, one packet of 40 seeds

A winter garden with an abundance of flowers is an unlikely feat. Jabbour, however, says she has grown flowers known as Johnny-jump-ups in a bed protected by mini-hoop frames during the winter. They can survive the cold though they may not flower until March when there is more sunshine. While flowers can be a beautiful addition to any garden, many varieties can also help to create a stronger garden during the warmer months, in part because of the insects they attract.

8) Bugs

Estimated Cost:

$17: 1,500 adult ladybugs (A single ladybug can eat up to 5,000 aphids in its lifetime.)

Your garden may be a war zone. In the warmer months, if the bad bugs are winning — bugs such as aphids that suck sap from lettuce leaves, or potato bugs or cabbage worms — you may need some good bugs (such as ladybugs) to fight back. You can attract them by planting flowers, herbs such as parsley or any kind of vegetable that flowers such as broccoli or kale.

Jabbour suggests attracting parasitic wasps to your garden. (Not your usual choice of guests, surely.) “They lay their eggs on the bad guys and burrow into them and then ingest them from the inside out,” she says. The risk: If there is not enough nectar or pollen, the wasps may just fly away. Or, you could just buy some bugs.

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper